Size sets Dorset House apart from the rest. The school in Bury, West Sussex, has chosen to reject opportunities to grow its numbers, and has instead opted to close its nursery and focus on the main prep school.
Its capacity of 160 pupils will not increase, with single form entry and a maximum of 20 children per year group. Close-knit nurturing environment fosters a feeling of confidence and security within its walls.
One of the oldest prep schools in the country, it has evolved many times during its 230 year history. Half a century ago it moved into Bury Manor, a Grade I listed former monastery blessed with curious corridors, winding staircases and spectacular downland views.
Once predominantly a full-boarding school for boys, its classrooms are now co-educational, and the majority of pupils are now day and flexi-boarders, staying a couple of nights a week or when busy working parents are away. Boarding houses are a warren of cosy rooms and polished wood in the old manor, which children treat as a second home. The library offers well-stuffed chairs to relax with a good book, or alternatively grab a beanbag from a pile in the corner.
Magnificent medieval barn acts as school hall, and is also licensed as a wedding venue. Productions are staged in here, as well as in the amphitheatre set in the beautiful grounds.
A walled garden where monks once grew vegetables and herbs has beds the children can tend, and provides a tranquil area for quiet time and younger pupils to play.
Older children head eagerly into the woods every breaktime to make camps and sculptures among the trees. The natural environment is exploited well by the Forest School initiative, children gaining a love and respect for the outdoors.
Headmaster Richard Brown insists far from lacking rigour, a small school prepares children for the outside world most effectively, because there is so much weight on responsibility. He aims to truly prepare them for the challenges that lay ahead, and believes firmly that results are achieved when children are happy.
Headmaster Richard Brown insists far from lacking rigour, a small school prepares children for the outside world most effectively.
Headmaster’s PA Sarah O’Brien said: “Our leadership programme begins right from Year 3. The children are taught to be responsible. If they have a music lesson, they are expected to know what time it is, and to find their way there themselves.
“The fact that we’re a small school also means that everyone has a chance to try every sport and be involved in every play. That prepares them well for senior school and they often go on to become prefects and heads at the bigger schools.”
Alongside the ancient manor house, modern classrooms and studios have grown up over the decades.
Specialist teachers are introduced early for Science, Music, PE and French, and by Year 5 every lesson is taught by a different specialist teacher.
More than half of pupils from Dorset House achieved scholarships last year. They move on to a wide range of senior schools including many in the surrounding area as well as top names like Harrow and Winchester.
Sport is big at DH. Its teams regularly beat those from much larger schools, and the U9 rugby team was unbeaten last season. A new astroturf pitch ensures sport can now be enjoyed all year round.
But it’s not just the winning that counts. The school is more proud that its pupils take such an interest in their team mates’ performances, encouraging and supporting one another.
But while they may all be one big family at DH, there is a fierce rivalry when it comes to house points. Successes are rewarded with an ‘O’ – from the Latin optimus – and serious bad behaviour with a ‘P’ for pessimus. These points are keenly collected and totted up each term.
Pupils enjoy train trips to London to visit galleries and theatres, and a bushcraft weekend trip to the New Forest also proved popular.
DH links closely with the neighbouring community; it helped found a new Cub group in the village, and its facilities are used by local musicians and the amateur dramatics society for rehearsals. Residents nearby are welcome to join the annual carol service and bonfire party. It is also closely associated with the church and hosts the village fete each summer to raise church funds.
In an area with such a wealth of independent and prep schools to choose from, Dorset House goes a very long way to prove that small is beautiful.